How to Talk Politics With Your Conservative Family as 2019 Ends in Chaos
A handy guide to keeping the protest going, even at home.
Put the fork down — it helps no one if you plunge it into the hand of a relative, no matter what nonsense they’re spouting. And take a deep breath. We’ve all been there. We’re all there right now. Arguing politics with That Relative (or Those Parents) on the opposite side is always painful. They’re condescending and irrational. Other relatives take sides. One person sits and sighs about peace and harmony; another quietly eats all of the samosas while no one is paying attention. And somehow it devolves into a discussion of how your problem is really that you’re not married (if you’re not), or (if you are) that you don’t have kids yet, or (if you’re married with kids) how you’re ruining the country’s future.
Here’s how to survive and maybe — just maybe — change hearts and minds.
1. Don’t take it personally.
This is probably the most difficult step. Yes, the personal is political, and the political is personal. But if you can take a moment to breathe deep and think of That One Relative as, say, a lab specimen — something to be studied — that can help keep your blood pressure down as well as turn an interaction into a conversation, rather than a fight.
2. Ask a genuine question.
This is the second hardest part. Once the gauntlet is thrown with an extremist (and, yes, often extremely stupid) statement, the natural reaction is to battle back. But no matter how logical or factual your response, it won’t work. That’s because it will make the people on the receiving end feel attacked — from the jump, their premise and beliefs are being disputed; this triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which inhibits our cognitive ability to analyze, empathize, and reflect, according to Dr. Karin Tamerius, the founder and managing director of Smart Politics, who outlines these discussion steps for the New York Times. The trick here is instead to ask a genuine, open-ended, and non-judgmental question, she says.
3. Really listen to the response.
So, you’ve mustered the energy to bite your tongue. You’ve even summoned up a legitimately thoughtful question. Okay, now it’s the hardest part: You have to actually listen. Try to distill what’s being said between the lines — not what you interpret or assume, but the personal sentiment the individual is trying to express. Most of the time, our political beliefs are in response to a perceived personal threat. What does this person feel worried by? Why?
4. Ask another question.
Congrats: You’ve reached a somewhat easier step. If you’ve really listened, you should be prepared to ask a follow-up question to your first question. The what and why questions above are always two good go-tos.
5. Mirror their perspective to show you’re listening.
Replaying what the other person has said does two things: it allows you to really understand their perspective, and it makes them feel safe and heard — and thus, more open to hearing your thoughts and really considering them in return, Dr. Tamerius writes. Use this as an opportunity to see if you’ve distilled their concerns correctly. “So, it sounds like you’re feeling insecure about the economy being able to support an influx of foreign migrants,” or “You’re really worried about national security, is that right?”
6. Agree with them.
Just kidding — this is the hardest part. But you can do it. Everyone believes in you. But, if you’ve really been listening, it also shouldn’t be that hard. You can probably find something to agree with them about — or at the very least appreciate. Maybe you’re worried about the economy, too. Or maybe national security is also a concern for you. After all, aren’t these topics things that everyone worries about?
7. Share your beliefs by way of personal experience.
It’s likely your relative(s) care about you — therefore, if your perspective is expressed in a personal anecdote, they’ll be more likely to care about the belief, too. Maybe you’re worried about the economy, too. But you think the bigger threat to it isn’t migrants, but the lack of jobs; your company has been laying off people right and left and you’re worried you’ll be next. Or you’re worried about security, too — but you are more concerned by domestic security; you were at a protest and a policeman harassed you for just standing quietly and talking to a friend. Another of your friends was out for a morning walk a day earlier and was harassed by a passer-by for being Muslim.
Ideally, this will prompt a question from your relative(s) about your experience — and the cycle can repeat. It may not be 50-50 — you may find yourself asking more questions about your relative(s) beliefs than they ask you about your experiences — but it may help you find common ground, get your perspective across, and at least keep the lines of communication open. It’s not ideal, but it is a start. Social progress is made at the dinner table as much as it is at huge rallies. And if we’re all lucky, we’ll end up with a samosa at the end.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.